To some, slow travel means time. It means spending weeks or months in a place to really understand it. For me, slow travel is a frame of mind.
In July, I joined my father for a week during his truck hauls to the US. I really wanted to go to Chicago, and luckily he was given an assignment in Indiana, so we’d be passing through Illinois. Because of regulations on how long a truck driver is allowed to be on the road in a day, I was able to explore the city for exactly 1 hour and 19 minutes.
In those 79 minutes, I was still able to slow travel. I visited the sculpture and centerpiece of Millennium Park known as the Bean (actually called Cloud Gate) and went to the Art Institute. More importantly, I talked with people who lived there. I received interesting insights about the place I wouldn’t have gathered otherwise, like where to get the most delicious Chicago-style pizza ever (Giordano’s deep-dish, double-crusted and stuffed deliciousness).
Here’s how to adopt a slow travel mindset, even when your time is limited.
Resist the urge to run and see ‘everything.’ Just observe. If you were going to be staying somewhere long-term, gaining an understanding of what people around you are doing would help you participate in that community.
I spent a good deal of my hour in Chicago just watching people. I sat on the grass at Crown Fountain and listened to families talking and children playing. I observed how people interacted — or didn’t interact — with the Bean and with tourists around the entrance of Millennium Park. I paid attention to what people were watching on the TV at Giordano’s. Rather than just walking up and down the Magnificent Mile ‘looking at’ things, I was able to learn a little more about what a Thursday afternoon is like for Chicagoans.
Rent an apartment or stay in a guesthouse.
Staying in a hotel or hostel, you may not get to know the place as it is; you could end up seeing what others — tourist boards, fellow backpackers — want you to. In an apartment, you shop and cook for yourself and have an excuse to ask neighbours and stall-owners in markets questions about the community.
During a long weekend in St. Lucia, I stayed at a family-owned guesthouse. I spoke with the owners and, despite being Jamaican-Canadian, I learned we indeed had fewer than six degrees of separation. It’s a small island and when we toured around, locals were often surprised that a group of British, American, and Canadian tourists weren’t staying at one of the big resorts. Some knew the family that owned our guesthouse and gave us discounts for things or good deals on transportation. Renting a place, housesitting, or staying in a local guesthouse drops you in the centre of the community rather than keeping you on the fringes.
Do something you’d normally do at home.
There are some things you typically do when you’re settled or staying in a place for a while, sometimes out of habit, sometimes out of necessity. I like to get pedicures once a season. Maybe you haven’t had a haircut in six months. If you’re short on time but want another eye into local life, do something you typically do when you’re not on the road — chances are you won’t meet another tourist at a local barbershop.
When I worked out at a gym in Martinique, I learned a different training philosophy and picked up a lot of exercise-related vocabulary in French. Salons are also very social places, and I overheard a lot of interesting stories while getting my hair done in Montreal. On both occasions, people asked about me and why they’d never seen me before.
Try going to church and witness how people worship your shared faith in a different language. Maybe you’re a dancer. Take a class in your style and experience the familiar with the unfamiliar. In all of these places, people are discussing politics, commenting on popular culture, talking about themselves, or (more often) gossiping about other people.
Talk with people.
I don’t mean saying “good morning” or asking about the best restaurants (though that’s definitely a start). I mean talk with them. Get to know their experience and opinions; ask how they see the place they live in or are from. Some of my deepest insights have come from people telling me what they thought about a place, their responses to questions, and learning about their personal challenges in their own homes.
In Chicago, a guy I randomly spoke to on the street told me about the importance of architecture in the city. He explained how he sees the combination of new and old buildings as the history informing the present. And there I was walking around thinking, “This place totally does remind me of Toronto!”
This is obviously more difficult when there’s a language barrier, but when this is the case, let others show you, instead of tell you. Then you’ll begin to see for yourself.
Use two feet, two wheels, or public transport.
Renting a car or taking taxis does this really weird thing: It isolates you. Walking around and getting lost, ironically, situates you. Listen to the music or the news station the bus driver has on the radio. Follow people who are moving purposefully. You might hear or discover something interesting.
I saw a group of young children skipping along the sidewalk in downtown Chicago — in bathing suits. Odd, I thought. It was really hot that day though. Then I saw two women together, one pushing a stroller, with bikini tops on under their overalls, headed in the same direction. I was confused — is there a pool or something in the middle of this busy city? I decided to investigate. They were headed to Crown Fountain — an interactive art installation also functioning as a waterpark. Wish I’d had my bathing suit!
Eat the food.
Not the food you read about in the tourist guides. I like to try the restaurants I see locals eating at. I spent two days on a catamaran in Dominica, and thanks to my partner’s recon, we ate at a Marloe’s Snackette in the middle of Roseau. Besides the two Coca-Cola bottles on the door, you wouldn’t know it was a restaurant if people weren’t coming out of it with Styrofoam containers. From the outside it was a house painted green among a sea of colourful houses (many of which were actually shops and cafés); from the inside, it was just a guy’s kitchen with bar stools in it.
Marloe served up some tasty local dishes. Afterwards, I spoke with him about his eponymous restaurant and asked about the recipe for his cocoa tea. He smiled and told me the ingredients were local, but kept a few of them secret. Back home, I bought a baton of cacao and tried to figure it out myself.
Everybody eats. What differs is what we eat and how we eat it, so local cuisine will give you a lot of information about a place in a pinch. The types of food, the amount of spices, and the method of cooking can tell you about the values and the history of a place.
Have a routine.
What would you do regularly if you were living in that place? When I was in Martinique, every Thursday my partner and I would go to our local market to do some shopping and then go on a little trip around the island. Eventually, the ladies at the market would recognize us and tell us about the new fruits they had in every week or explain new ways of cooking dishes.
If you have a week, start your morning at a coffeeshop or end a day at your local pub. No matter where you are, for however long, just let people get to know you.